Why We Eat Out
by MICHAEL DEPP
I’ve just returned from a trip home to New York, and such trips for me are invariably sprinkled with meals out with my family. These are illuminating experiences for me, as they tend to make me reframe my view of the whole eating out experience. My relatives don’t dine in restaurants with nearly the frequency that I do, and they certainly don’t do it in the kinds of venues I’ve been spoiled enough to experience at someone else’s expense. They don’t fuss over nuances of foie gras preparation. They don’t know what emulsion is (and would be aghast at the notion that anyone should be charged for frothing up a plate). They don’t have the experience to navigate a wine list. They are like most people who eat out: They get a little gussied up. They think of it as something special, infrequently indulged in, potentially memorable.
I should be immune to it now, but I’m always surprised at just how badly you can be treated at a restaurant back home. In fact, I had one of the worst dining out experiences of my life there not all that long ago. Here’s the gist of it: We’re in an overpriced pub/restaurant, where I order a foccacia sandwich billed on the menu as vegetarian with chicken as an added option. The sandwich arrives with chicken— unordered—but by the time I spot the erroneous inclusion, the waiter is gone. No tragedy. I eat half of the chicken sandwich. (The foccacia, incidentally, could only be technically and generously described as such.) When the waiter does return about 20 minutes later, I explain the mistake, and he disappears, flustered. In his stead comes a manager, to whom I explain that, quite simply, I didn’t order chicken, so I’d rather not have to pay for it. Her response: “What’s the matter? Are you a vegetarian?”
I had doggie-bagged the remaining half of my sandwich by this late point in the meal, and since she was staring at me blankly, I jokingly asked if she would like me to give her the remaining half of the chicken. She did want it back as it happened, so she waited until I unwrapped the sandwich half, removed the chicken, and put it on the table. And did I mention that this meal was actually quite expensive?
Apologies for the long anecdote, but I think it does illustrate a disconnect that often happens at bad restaurants between the staff and diners with certain expectations, however meager or malleable. An inattentive waiter and a thick and offensive manager ruined a rare meal that I had with my family. It threw off the whole rhythm of our evening, ruptured what should have been a seamless or even pleasant backdrop for us to visit with each other.
All of this negativity leads me to one restaurant that absolutely, always seems to get it—the sum of intangibles that lift a meal to the level that sates a diner beyond his or her hunger and feeds something of the need for pageantry, indulgence and flattery that we bring to those meals we elevate to the level of a special occasion.
Brennan’s (417 Royal St.) has long occupied the venerated tier of local restaurants whose stature is amplified to something close to legend–Galatoire’s, Antoine’s, Commander’s Palace and only a few others share the ranks. I’ve had fine meals at all of these places, and I’m certain that elegies abound out there for each of them. (I know they’re inscribed in the Galatoire’s “biography” penned recently by Kenneth Holditch and Marda Burton.) But there’s something just a little more rarefied about Brennan’s, a performance consistently delivered on the many occasions I’ve been there that merits notice.
Changes of the guard at Brennan’s happen about as frequently as we get a new pope. And seeing as how we’ve just gotten one of those, it seems fitting to point out that Brennan’s has a new executive chef in its kitchen: chef Lazone Randolph. To say “new,” however, requires some qualification since Randolph has actually been with Brennan’s for 40 years. He started as a dishwasher in high school, grabbed a spot in the back of the kitchen when it became available and climbed through the ranks methodically over the years, including a five-year stint at the now-shuttered Brennan’s in Dallas where he was briefly the executive chef.
When Randolph took the reigns from chef Mike Roussel in early 2004, no white smoke came from the kitchen. No radical edicts were issued, no immediate changes felt. And that’s just how he wanted it. “Consistency—that’s our key word at Brennan’s,” he says.
Randolph says things are very similar to when he was working through the ranks in the early years—with one exception: Cooks back then were thrown right into the fray, and it was learn or leave in short order. “They would show you something maybe once or twice, and the next time you’d just have to get it,” he says. “They didn’t have the luxury of somebody trying to train you.”
Young chefs from around the country now clamor to get just that exposure—and training—at the heels of Randolph and his veteran colleagues, many of whom have also logged in decades on the job. “We don’t have a high volume of turnover,” he says.
Perhaps it’s for that reason cooks at Brennan’s become so fluently versed in the unique language of its kitchen, an idiomatic Creole style marked by flavors as deep as the kind of breath one takes before taking a long plunge underwater. New dishes do circulate with some regularity—debuting as lunch specials, where they are given a long trial before even being considered for canonical promotion to that most sacred of documents: the dinner menu. But all must conform to the strictures of the Brennan’s culinary language, of which Randolph is now the careful, conservative, but generous, dean.
In the spirit of sharing a line on a particularly memorable dish, starting this month I’ll be passing on standouts from my own casual dining around.
There are a few things upon which Irishmen can claim unquestionable authority: literature, stout, whiskey and fish are among them. Chef Matt Murphy of Victor’s Grill at the Ritz-Carlton (921 Canal St.) is certainly well versed in the latter, and his blackened grouper over wild mushroom risotto finds him doing some of his best work. Served with wilted spinach and a citrus beurre blanc (orange and lime rind are the principal flavoring agents there) with capers, the lightly blackened fish holds an ideal consistency and tastes far lighter than it has a right to. It’s $32 at Victor’s. Try it—you’ll thank me. •